mClassic HDMI Upscaler Review – The Ideal Nintendo Switch Upscaling Solution
mClassicOctober 7th, 2019
Image post-processing is nothing new to gaming, but for a multitude of reasons, it's not commonplace. Good post-processors can be expensive, come with noticeable latency, or just don't make much of a difference. The popular gaming post-processors that are on the market are aimed primarily at the retro crowd right now, such as the Framemeister. But Marseille's mClassic is looking to change all of that. The mClassic promises to be extremely low-latency, with noticeable results on both retro and HD consoles, and at a fairly inexpensive price point. Too good to be true, or the perfect addition to your gaming set-up?
The mClassic is being designed by some of the finest minds in the industry, including chief designer and N.W.A. founding member Arabian Prince. Yes, that N.W.A. I didn't know that the legendary rap group had the knowledge and influence to design such a promising piece of tech either, but if the mClassic delivers everything it promises to, then it'll prove that the N.W.A. really is as gangsta as they claim to be.
Marseille have been generous with the language they've used to describe the mClassic on the back of the box. The front of the box proudly claims "Better Graphics. Better Pixels. Better Gameplay." Bold if nothing else, and then the back of the box quite literally states "the mClassic is like having a new graphics card, with the hassle of modifying your console."
Quite clearly, this is being aimed squarely at the console crowd. The first question to answer, then, is why this is the case. After my extensive testing of the device, I can only conclude that this device is built for 1080p. You can feed a 4K video into the device and activate the post-processing, but you will find yourself underwhelmed with the results. Quite intelligently, the upscaler keeps image processing low with higher-resolution inputs, so as not to accidentally smooth out smaller details. As such, using this device on a PC monitor made for higher resolutions will just result in diminishing returns, and may inadvertently soften or smooth-over the image, which could make any graphic design work you may do on your PC slightly inaccurate. For best results, and to avoid complicating things, this device should only be used on consoles or media players which output at 1080p.
Also, the marketing does state that the mClassic can upscale 1080p content to 4K, and while this is true, this is only the case for 30hz content and below. For gaming then this is awkward, as not all consoles offer a 30hz output mode, and this will of course prevent you from playing games at 60FPS. But even without a 4K output, the mClassic does a good job of smoothing over the rough edges, even with a 1080p picture. This review focuses on the gaming experience with the mClassic, but rest assured that 480p DVD and 1080p Blu-ray movies will look much cleaner when fed through the mClassic.
It's somewhat to be expected, though. This device doesn't work miracles, what it does is supply those games which look rough around the edges on larger displays with a nice custom anti-aliasing solution to make them look a bit more visually appealing. And if that's what you're expecting, then you might be pleasantly surprised - though not as overwhelmed as the mClassic's marketing might have had you believe you would be.
Because of the diminishing returns you receive from attempting to smooth over a 4K image, I've decided to double-down and focus on lower-resolution systems for this test, namely the Nintendo Switch and the Wii U - I'll explain the reason for the latter later on. The Nintendo Switch often has games run below 1080p while docked, and several first-party Nintendo titles are presented in native 1080p, but with zero anti-aliasing. Perfect test subjects for a device like the mClassic, then.
I started with Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a recent release that looks beautiful on Nintendo Switch, but noticeably aliased on larger displays thanks to no anti-aliasing. The depth of field effect does help mask this while moving through the world, but it's still simple enough to spot a rough edge. In these Animal Crossing: New Horizons pictures, notice the rounded leaves on the trees - without the mClassic's post-processing, these have very slight rough edges, while with post-processing they truly look round. The pot below the tree meanwhile has very obvious pixel crawl around the top of the pot, which is still visible, but obviously smoothed over, with post-processing turned on. Similar, minor, improvements can be spotted around the image, like on the texture of the bamboo lunch box on the table, just above the pot.
When passing a 1080p image through the upscaler what comes out is a softer image, but one that looks less visually messy. In motion, it's still absolutely possible to spot pixel crawl and shimmering in places, but it is much less obvious. It's the same for Nintendo's other 1080p titles which lack anti-aliasing, including The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess on Wii U. The upgrade is noticeable if you look hard enough, and you know what to look for - but the average player is unlikely to pick up on these things in motion unless they regularly play on a large display.
But of course, many games on Nintendo Switch run below 1080p, and some are even fixed at 720p. These games will still benefit from the mClassic's upscaling, but in order to make the most of it, you should change the resolution your system outputs. The mClassic's sharpening and upscaling works more aggressively when given a lower resolution image to start with, so changing your Nintendo Switch's docked output to 720p while playing 720p games, such as Xenoblade Chronicles 2, will result in the mClassic working harder to smooth and soften the image.
It's here you can spot some of the limitations, but also some of the advantages of the mClassic. When it is working harder to smooth over the pixels, you really do see the benefits. 720p games really do look rough when displayed on a 4K TV, but the mClassic will take that 720p image, upscale and output at 1080p, and the rough edges are handled marvelously. In these games, again, you can absolutely spot pixel crawl if you look hard enough, but unlike the minor improvements you see with a 1080p image, a 720p image feels transformative, as if you've actually been able to mod a high-quality AA solution into the game itself.
These screenshots from the upcoming Xenoblade Chronicles: Definite Edition were taken when the console was outputting at 720p, and when the upscaler was activated you are left with a far cleaner, though admittedly much softer, image on a large display.
But this all highlights an issue. Most people looking to implement something like this into their set up probably don't want to regularly change their Nintendo Switch's output mode in order to see the best results. Most people will want to put the mClassic into their entertainment center and then entirely forget about it, all while enjoying the image benefits. And you can absolutely do that. Leave your Nintendo Switch on a 1080p output and put the mClassic upscaling on, and you will undoubtedly enjoy image benefits in every scenario, they just won't be as pronounced as you might like, depending on what game you're playing. This all becomes even more complicated when playing games that use adaptive resolutions.
The benefits of the upscaler really are shown in full when the device is given more rough edges to work with. And that remains true when we go into even lower resolutions, such as 480p. At 480p the mClassic works aggressively, but still upscales and outputs at a full 1080p. As such, the Retro mode included with the mClassic might convince retro fanatics to upgrade their set up.
Retro mode on the mClassic works similarly to the primary upscaling mode, though here your image will be output in 4:3, making this clearly more ideal for retro consoles available before the popularity of HDTVs. You'll still have a 4:3 480p image upscaled to a full 1080p, though you'll get black bars at the sides of the screen in order to maintain the aspect ratio. This is why the Wii U was the ideal console to test with the mClassic, not only can the system, be set to output a 4:3 480p image, but it can also do so in Wii mode, a system designed for 480p. Couple that with the Wii's extensive ability to emulate classic games, and this is the perfect system to test the mClassic's retro capabilities.
And almost unbelievably, the benefits are clear from the Wii menu itself. The device was never meant to display this menu on a 4K screen, and it's all too easy to spot the small issues. Essentially, in places, the menu looks like a low-resolution image, which it most likely is, complete with small image artifacts. The rounded icons on the Wii settings menu and the main icon look aliased on a large screen at a low resolution, but when passed through the mClassic they are round, and all of the tiny artifacts are cleaned up instantly. Now, this is definitely where the issues become more obvious - the device obviously can't display more detail than it is given, so icons and logos on the Wii menu still look blurry and soft, but they are absolutely more legible than they ever were when more pixelated.
2D games receive a considerable "improvement," but this one will all be down the preference. It's a fact that a lot of retro gamers prefer to see their pixels clearly on display, while others would rather have those older games look a bit softer and smoother as they did on the CRT TVs they grew up with. Well, the good news is that SNES games like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past worked wonderfully with the mClassic, and smoothed over the harsh edges of pixels without occluding any of the detail in the game. Again, which you prefer will be down to what you want to see in your retro pixel games, but personally I found the mClassic's interpretation of SNES games to the raw image.
3D games also look far cleaner using the retro mode. I couldn't help but test an old classic like Super Mario 64 (the PAL 50hz version, unfortunately), and as with all of the other games mentioned here, it was considerably smoothed over. On these much older 3D games the point about a softer image doesn't really apply - all of the post-processing provided by the mClassic on N64 games makes the image quality look better, there really isn't an argument to be made to the contrary like with 2D games.
But then there are games like Madworld, the PlatinumGames Wii exclusive which took a solidly black and white monochrome aesthetic to the extreme - punctuated with bursts of red blood, of course. While this looks very visually pleasing, the detail in some sections can leave everything looking like an aliased mess. The mClassic has its work cut out for it here - and surprisingly enough, it does a good job, though not a transformative one. Edges are obviously cleaned up and the game certainly looks better when displayed on a large TV this way, but it's not perfect. The mClassic can't be a miracle worker in every situation.
But one of the key reasons for testing games on the Wii U was the HDMI port - this retro mode only outputs a 4:3 picture, but this device obviously only works with consoles with an HDMI port. Therefore, if you're looking to add this to your retro gaming set up, then you will likely already own an HDMI converter, such as a Framemeister, or a VGA to HDMI converter for the Dreamcast. If you don't have an HDMI converter for your retro systems already, then that will be the first thing you should look get before the mClassic.
Who is this for?
So we get to the big question - who is this for? Well, we've already ruled out PC and 4K console players - quite frankly the benefits for them are too small to mention. And unlike what you may have thought from some of the marketing, this isn't a perfect 4K upscaler for your 1080p devices, it's closer to a 1080p upscaler for your other full-HD-and-below devices. If you regularly play on a base modern console, the PS4 or Xbox One, or a Nintendo console, such as the Switch or Wii U, or anything with an HDMI port, then the mClassic is sure to offer a boost to the image quality of 3D games, while the way it smooths over pixel art in 2D games will be down to preference.
If the retro mode here is to your preference, then the mClassic makes for a great accompaniment to any retro gaming set up and makes older games look much more palatable on a large display. But the mClassic is definitely at home with the Nintendo Switch. The fact that it renders many games below 1080p means that games make the most of the mClassic's tech, and the improvements are more noticeable than they would be on a more powerful system running at higher native resolutions and with anti-aliasing on by default.
Review unit provided by the manufacturer.
This isn't the perfect upscaling solution, but it's a darn good one, and Nintendo Switch owners will find a great use for this charming little HDMI dongle. While I do wish it was really able to upscale my 1080p60hz inputs to glorious 4K, what it does is more than good enough. While using the mClassic I found all the games I played across the board to look less aliased and cleaner, if a bit softer, but that was a worthwhile trade. Marseille's mClassic is a great piece of kit that will work wonders for owners of a large TV, though those who prefer playing on smaller screens won't understand the hype.
- Massively cleans up harsh lines and aliased edges in 3D games
- Soften pixels in 2D games
- Upscales all sub-1080p images to 1080p
- Virtually no added lag
- Does not upscale 1080p 60hz content to 4K, only 30hz and below
- Image quality can look too soft for purists